Barack Obama’s smoking gun

Whether it makes a difference that Barack Obama once was a smoker (and may be struggling to keep a nonsmoking status) may depend on whether or not you smoke.

Whether it makes a difference that he’s working to quit his addictive habit may depend on whether or not you’ve quit.

Whether this is a campaign issue may depend on your party affiliation, whether a loved one died of lung cancer, or whether you regard the White House as a petri dish for popular culture or a residence where someone — even a president — should have some privacy.

Having thus set the stage, some readers may still be blurting, "Obama smokes?!"

Candidates never want voters to see them in anything less than a positive light, so photos of Obama with a cigarette are rare or dated. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune last year in the earliest days of his presidential bid, Obama averred that he’d never been a heavy smoker, but "I’ve got an ironclad demand from my wife that in the stresses of the campaign I don’t succumb. I’ve been chewing Nicorette strenuously."

Although smoking rates have steadily declined, more than one in five adult Americans smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control. John McCain also once smoked, but says he hasn’t had a cigarette in more than 28 years — although he joked last fall that he might be tempted "if there were a hydrogen-tipped weapon heading toward America."

It’s been decades since we’ve had a president who was a regular cigarette smoker, way back to Franklin Roosevelt. Presidents Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy and Bill Clinton smoked a cigar or pipe only occasionally. Dwight Eisenhower smoked four packs daily until 1949, four years before he became president.

Often asked how he quit, Eisenhower said that he simply put smoking out of his mind, according to one biography.

Organizations such as the American Lung Association see the issue of Obama’s cigarette use as a teachable moment.

"Certainly, there are some very smart and very capable people who unfortunately get addicted to tobacco," said Bob Moffitt, communications director for the association in Minnesota and a former smoker himself. "We certainly encourage people not to smoke, but it’s more of a teachable moment rather than getting concerned about what Obama should do.

"What we tell people, and what we could tell Sen. Obama, is don’t give up. You may quit on your first attempt. It may be your seventh. It may be your 17th."

Obama, by his own account, has started and stopped several times, leading skeptics to debate across the Internet what "stopping" really means. Obama, 46, said in February that he was quitting again, which of course meant that he’d started again.

Bruce Benidt, a communications consultant in Minneapolis, said it reminds him of "The West Wing" episode in which Josh Lyman was asked at a press conference when President Jed Bartlet was going to quit smoking. Lyman replied, "The president quit smoking years ago," only to be told, "He bummed a cigarette from me on Air Force One two days ago."

"Bartlet is supposedly against the health effects of smoking, so the issue is hypocrisy," Benidt said. "Bartlet sneaks cigarettes regularly, in the Situation Room, in the National Cathedral while he’s arguing with God." Yet as Benidt reads it, "Somehow sneaking the weeds makes the Bartlet character — a Nobel Prize-winning economist as well as president — more human."

Benidt is a smoker himself and knows that the image of smokers is "low-class, uneducated, kind of desperate and pathetic," he said. "But in a weird way, for an educated, well-off person like Obama or myself, smoking is one way to still be a bad boy — stupid as that is."

In May, Obama’s doctor said that the candidate was in excellent health at the time of his last checkup, while adding that his smoking habit poses an obvious risk and that Obama is using Nicorette "with success." Still, the CDC says that adverse health effects from cigarette smoking account for almost 20 percent of the nation’s annual deaths.

Brian Fitzpatrick, senior editor for the Culture and Media Institute in Alexandria, Va., has followed Obama and how Americans and the media perceive him. If Obama successfully quits smoking, he’ll gain respect, "because it’s a very difficult thing to do and so would be a demonstration of strong character," Fitzpatrick said.

"The problem with Obama is that he’s apparently working hard to quit, but even with the Nicorette, he knows people look down on people who smoke. One of the most successful campaigns ever in the U.S. to change and influence behavior was the antismoking campaign. It changed America’s perspective completely."

"The thing that concerns me is that it’s going to damage that effort if we have a president who smokes, even surreptitiously," Fitzpatrick said.